On February 14, 1989, Valentine's Day, Salman Rushdie was telephoned by a BBC journalist and told that he had been "sentenced to death" by the Ayatollah Khomeini. For the first time he heard the word fatwa. His crime? To have written a novel called The Satanic Verses, which was accused of being "against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran."
So begins the extraordinary story of how a writer was forced underground, moving from house to house, with the constant presence of an armed police protection team. He was asked to choose an alias that the police could call him by. He thought of writers he loved and combinations of their names; then it came to him: Conrad and Chekhov - Joseph Anton.
How do a writer and his family live with the threat of murder for more than nine years? How does he go on working? How does he fall in and out of love? How does despair shape his thoughts and actions, how and why does he stumble, how does he learn to fight back? In this remarkable memoir Rushdie tells that story for the first time; the story of one of the crucial battles, in our time, for freedom of speech. He talks about the sometimes grim, sometimes comic realities of living with armed policemen, and of the close bonds he formed with his protectors; of his struggle for support and understanding from governments, intelligence chiefs, publishers, journalists, and fellow writers; and of how he regained his freedom.
It is a book of exceptional frankness and honesty, compelling, provocative, moving, and of vital importance. Because what happened to Salman Rushdie was the first act of a drama that is still unfolding somewhere in the world every day.
And by that destiny to perform an act
Whereof what's past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
The First Blackbird
Afterwards, when the world was exploding around him and the lethal blackbirds were massing on the climbing frame in the school playground, he felt annoyed with himself for forgetting the name of the BBC reporter, a woman, who had told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She had called him at home on his private line without explaining how she got the number. "How does it feel," she asked him, "to know that you have just been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?" It was a sunny Tuesday in London but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: "It doesn't feel good." This is what he thought: I'm a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left to live and thought the ...
Rushdie's memoir puts me in the position of greatly admiring the life but lamenting its literary representation. I couldn't put Joseph Anton down, despite all of the ways it let me down. This is a deeply flawed memoir by someone with a fascinating and immensely important story to tell. I recommend it with many qualifications....
One cannot help but wonder what Rushdie's work would look like had the fatwa not pushed him to straight, literal chronology of one detail plodding after another, had he not partly renounced his weapon of choice to shape the terms in which we regard the fatwa, had he evinced a bit more self-consciousness about his own literary reaction to political persecution. (Reviewed by Amy Reading).
Full Review (1155 words).
Before there was the fatwa, there were protests, bans, and deaths. The first inkling of controversy came just before the book's publication, when an Indian journalist broke the publishing embargo on writing about a book before it is available for sale. Madhu Jain's article, "An Unequivocal Attack on Religious Fundamentalism," was published in the magazine India Today in September 1988, and three weeks later The Satanic Verses was banned in India, Rushdie's homeland. Three days after that, he received his first death threat. Jain has recently responded to Rushdie's accusation that her review was "the match that lit the fire."
Not long after being passed over for the Booker Prize that fall, which went to Peter Carey's ...
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